They Watch: a dystopian sci-fi film of the oppressed being used to oppress others

Andre LeBlanc, “They Watch” (2016)

In the near future, a mother and her teenage son living in small-town America are under siege from an oppressive police-state bureaucracy using an ingenious surveillance system that exploits prison labour as disembodied spies and snitches. The teenage son has been secretly working to expose the corruption of the system by helping to edit and distribute copies of a samizdat-style newspaper called The Truth; this act of defiance has brought him and his mother to the attention of the authorities who use the astral bodies of prisoners to invisibly infiltrate the homes of people suspected of dissident activity and to passively report back to their controllers via technology that sees what the prisoners see and broadcast it back to the controllers. One of the two prisoners sent to spy on the boy and his mum turns out to have a connection with the boy, and this poses a moral dilemma for the prisoner. Whatever decision he takes will lead either to his own death or to the capture and certain torture and imprisonment of the teenage boy and his mother, with death in custody or capital punishment a very likely fate for either or both of them.

The film does have a slick Hollywood-style about it: it runs smoothly with quite good credible special effects; but at the same time, it does have sloppy presentation and editing. The logic of the narrative does have holes: it seems unbelievable that a hi-tech surveillance system would make such a blunder as to assign the astral body of a prisoner who once taught the teenage boy debating in high school to spying on the boy. (Though of course the databases we have that collect vast amounts of information about people for future blackmailing purposes would not be 100% infallible and there is the possibility that such databases would assign stalkers to observe people they know and care for.) Setting alight a pile of papers in a closed room seems to be asking for trouble; viewers might find themselves rooting for the secret police to bust down the doors before the kid and his mum suffocate from lack of oxygen.

The plot idea is of the sort that the 1990s television series “The X Files” might well turn its nose up at: it’s a hokey mishmash of hard science fiction and ghost thriller fantasy. The idea that has been done to death in some form or another: the state co-opting prisoners into snitching on other, perhaps innocent people for very little reward. Surely the use of astral bodies to do things that ordinary people and even AI technology can’t do seems far-fetched, especially if the astral bodies turn out to have minds of their own. Nevertheless the idea of an oppressive system using those it oppresses as slaves to enforce extreme conformity and cut off dissidence is one that will continue to disturb audiences long after they have seen this film.

Orbit: adaptation of famous Edgar Allan Poe story enquires into the fragility of identity

Nicholas Camp, Don Thiel III, “Orbit” (2019)

A clever re-telling of the classic Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, this short film explores the impact of extreme physical isolation on an individual’s psychology. The narrator / protagonist (Chris Cleveland) is an astronaut working with a much older and more experienced colleague (Jacob Witkin, in his last role before he died not long afterwards) in a spacecraft orbiting a giant exoplanet in the far reaches of space. The old fellow’s coloured glass eye infuriates the younger man for some reason and the latter plots the man’s death. Sure enough, after despatching the old fellow, the astronaut hides his body under the floor panels but the spacecraft registers the death and sends a signal out to space-station HQ. Two officers (Jasmine Kaur and David Competello) promptly fly out to the craft and interrogate the astronaut. During interrogation, the astronaut is irritated by a growing ringing in his ears, which he is convinced is the heartbeat of his victim, and though the officers seem satisfied with his explanation regarding the old man’s death, the astronaut ends up confessing to his crime and shows the horrified officers where he has buried the corpse.

Set in the style of low-budget science fiction films of the 1970s – 1990s – the various incarnations of the “Star Trek” television series and spin-off movies come to mind – the short does a capable job in portraying the obsessive monomania and growing psychosis in the astronaut (though he is always in danger of falling into a stock villainous character type and the actor would have been well advised to be rid of his beard). Quick editing and interspersing the scenes of the interrogation with shots of the murder, other violence and some small amounts of gore stoke and increase the tension. The music soundtrack is of Wagnerian orchestral excess applied in discreet and tasteful amounts to amplify the drama at crucial points in the plot while maintaining the classic Hollywood style of space-opera science fiction films.

The film’s conclusion suggests a rather different fate for the narrator than most adaptations of the Poe story have previously done and posits the paradoxical notion that physical isolation, rather than increasing or accentuating a person’s individuality and identity (to his/her fellows), instead breaks it down. (Something the CIA has known for half a century at least, from experience in torturing people by depriving them of all sensory stimulation in its notorious MK-ULTRA experiments.) The glass eye is given much greater importance in this adaptation of the Poe story than in the original story itself; it truly becomes a mirror of the blankness of the soul behind it.

Clean Cut: short whimsical sci-fi black comedy of an unlikely serial killer in the making

Andrew Hunt, “Clean Cut” (2015)

From DUST, an online channel specialising in screening science fiction films made by up-and-coming film-makers comes this very amusing and cheeky horror comedy short starring an autonomous robot vacuum cleaner. Roomba keeps the floors of its owner’s house spotlessly clean and the film also hints that the robot does double duty as a security guard. One night a burglar (Scott Jorgenson) breaks into the house but suffers a heart attack and spills his life-saving tablets all over the floor. Lying helplessly supine on the floor, he implores Roomba to save him by passing the tablets over but Roomba hoovers them up and the burglar dies. In a remarkable and breathtaking bird’s-eye point-of-view shot with the wooden floor as backdrop, Roomba zooms up and down: each time it zooms up the floor, it is carrying plastic bags, tape and an already bloodied electric saw. We hear noises of cutting from off-screen, then Roomba zooms down dragging the bag full of wrapped body parts!

From this moment on, though there is not much left of the film, we get subtle hints of Roomba’s growing self-awareness (the machine pauses to gaze at its bloodied reflection in a mirror) and the beginnings of an emotional life (it angrily flashes red when its owner verbally abuses it after all the work it has done for him). Viewers are left in no doubt that a new if rather gruesome vocation beckons for Roomba and the owner had better watch his own back.

While the plot is laughable and wouldn’t bear more than a five-minute short before it thins out, the film maintains audience interest by filming at the Roomba’s level and emphasising a minimalist approach to its story and characters with lots of close-up shots. The whimsical music adds to the general improbable theme of an ordinary, even banal household gadget, cute to look at and for toddlers to ride, having a secret life as a serial killer capable of emotions and having the motivation to choose its victims and plot its next murders. Even the smallest, most harmless-looking object, provided it has sufficient intelligence, can become a killing machine monster.

Perfectly Natural: science fiction horror film about demonic possession of the for-profit corporate kind

Victor Alonso-Berbel, “Perfectly Natural” (2018)

No aliens, monsters, paranormal events or denizens of Hell or the 25th dimension abound here but this 12-minute short is as horrifying in its own apparently innocent, everyday-life-looking way as films about people being possessed by demons. In “Perfectly Natural”, the demon of possession exists in virtual technology, summoned by the corporate owners who employ Wanda as one of their company’s many IT workers. Wanda is encouraged to use the company’s babysitting service by her boss: the fees for the babysitting service come out of her pay packet and the service, using holograms and AI, supposedly streams knowledge, cognitive awareness and skills like knowing a second language into baby Max’s mind through a microchip attached to the side of his brow. Wanda discovers this service comes with many strings attached: it continually prompts her with emails sent to her computer to enroll Max into yet more programs that will stimulate his mind and intelligence, yet if she clicks on a tab in the emails to enroll him, she is hit with demands to cough up money. Gradually the realisation dawns on Wanda and her partner Zach that their baby has been captured by the corporation which has substituted virtual versions of Wanda and Zach not only to entertain and guide Max through the various cyber-territories he must navigate but to replace the real flesh-and-blood Wanda and Zach altogether. The child has become a real-life Snow White, dead to the world, while his parents face social censure and Wanda getting the sack if they withdraw Max from the company program.

The film proceeds in a straightforward way at a steady pace through the plot, the cast of three actors playing Wanda, her boss and Zach capably in the short time they have, which makes the film’s climax (when Wanda and Zach discover they have lost Max to the corporation) all the more despairing. They can rescue him physically but the program warns them he might suffer neurological damage if they pull him out too early – well, of course the program would say that, playing on the fear and guilt the parents will suffer if at some later time Max ends up being behind the other kids at school work.

The presentation is excellent with great cinematography and editing. The plot is a bit rough around the edges: the nature of Wanda’s work is not too clear and we have no idea how she came to be employed by the corporation. Why Wanda’s boss manages to raise her own children without subjecting them to the babysitting service is not explained: one would have thought such a service would be compulsory for all employees. Because the film has been made as a short, there is no explanation for the corporate agenda behind the babysitting service – a full-length film would be needed to show and tell, as well as detail how Wanda and Zach discover what their roles in the corporation are, what the corporation has in mind in using Max as a guinea pig, and how the parents manage (or not) to wrest Max and his mind away from permanent enslavement.